As word got around that Levon Helm was temporarily unable to sing, curious anticipation was flowing through the newly restored, absolutely lovely 3,000 seat Stanley Theatre in Utica, NY on Saturday night.
A giant band with full brass section, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen on baby grand piano, multi instrumentalist Larry Campbell and wife Theresa Williams, Levon and daughter Amy Helm, guitarist Jim Weider and a cast of legendary session players stepped up to help out the temporarily silent singer. As Levon has often said, “I’m a drummer first and foremost, but I started singing whenever we ran short and I was needed.” Their sound was big, loud, and joyous, exploring the organic beauty that makes Levon and The Band such uniquely American treasures. They went far, playing genres from every corner of this country, reminding us all of perhaps its greatest asset: homegrown tunes and heart-stopping melodies, often forgotten in these troubled times.
A raucous “The Shape I’m In” opened the nearly 2-hour set, which included Dixieland jazz, Mississippi delta blues, New Orleans stomp, soul, boogie-woogie and spiritual. The band did a promenade across the stage during the classic party tune, “Mardi Gras.” Campbell, Williams, and Amy Helm stunned the crowd with a perfect three-part a capella version of Robert Hunter’s “Attics of my Life.” The band worked through a haunting version of the murderous “Long Black Veil,” with Theresa Williams’ powerhouse vocal sending a chill through air. Fagen blew the place apart with Steely Dan’s “Black Friday,” tight and loaded with sax solos of every variety, even a baritone was hoisted out for the occasion. Fagen’s barrelhouse piano runs and pounding chords were a delight. When Theresa Williams sang a bold and stunning version of Rick Danko’s signature Band tune, “It Makes No Difference,” it felt as if the spirits of the deceased Danko and Richard Manuel, were close at hand for the celebration of their seminal contribution to American music.
Larry Campbell sang several songs throughout the night, including a nasty “Deep Elem Blues” and “I’m a Jealous Man,” moving through the evening on electric guitar with slide fills, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, the guy is a powerhouse. An accomplished producer and musician having toured for several years with Dylan, Campbell mentioned before “Attics” that being on board with Phil Lesh and Friends over the past few years was one of the best things he ever did. Having only heard him sing “Peggy O” with Phil’s band, I was surprised by the range of his rich singing voice, which really augmented the variety of this show. He then improvised the Garth Hudson intro to “Chest Fever,” and sang it as well. The overall vocal mix was superb, and of course, Levon’s rich signature backbeat playing full of rim shots and tight Christmas snare was a beauty to behold.
An authentic southern working musician, Levon Helm is a gem. The band traded off verses of “the Weight” to close the evening, and with a giant smile Levon accepted a rose from an audience member. This outfit has tremendous depth, and although Levon was silent, it was great to watch them mix up the setlist to accommodate their brother and pull off a really good gig. Levon will be found playing and singing again soon at his now mythic Rambles down the road in Woodstock in a few short weeks. Go see one soon. A dynamic tight outfit paying tribute to the genius of The Band is nothing short of spectacular, and to see it in Thomas Lamb’s restored Mexican Baroque theatre on a rainy fall night in upstate was a real pleasure for this Utican.
The Shape I’m in
Love Played a Game
All Your Love
Before I Grow Too Old
Did You Love Me
Deep Elem Blues
Attics of my Life
Across the Great Divide
It Makes No Difference
Encore: the Weight